Steve Martin Finally Finds Peace, Love and Understanding

A new sprawling, two-part documentary deep-dives into the career of this previously wild and crazy guy
Steve Martin Finally Finds Peace, Love and Understanding

Whew. I’m going to need a minute after watching Steve!, the two-part documentary about Steve Martin that premieres Friday on AppleTV+. The comedian gets the treatment that Judd Apatow and HBO gave George Carlin with a sprawling retrospective that runs nearly as long as Killers of the Flower Moon. Does that much arrow-through-the-head humor sound like overkill? Not when you consider the breadth of Martin’s career, from his days writing counterculture comedy for the Smothers Brothers in the 1960s to his wild and crazy SNL and stand-up days in the ‘70s to his decades of blockbuster moviemaking to becoming an unlikely streaming star in his eighth decade on the planet. For longevity alone, Martin’s journey deserves critical examination.

The two 90-minute docs are titled Then and Now, with Martin’s abrupt exit from stand-up in 1980 providing a convenient dividing line in his career. To director Morgan Neville’s credit, Then and Now feel like distinct documentaries, with present-day Martin not showing up until the Now part of the story. Each half of the story sounds incredibly far-fetched, though in completely different ways.

If we’re focusing on Martin’s comedy fortunes, Then is the more unbelievable tale. While he found early work as a magician and joke writer, Martin was about as far from an overnight stand-up success as you can get. His late 1960s idea to cut his long hair and shave his beard signaled his decision “to be at the front of a new movement rather than at the tail end of an old one.” He dropped the political and drug humor that everyone else was doing in favor of a new persona: He’d become “a comedian who thinks he’s funny and he isn’t.” 

Some audiences got the avant-garde approach, but a lot of them did not — except for the “thinks he’s funny and he isn’t” part. Fans coming to see Linda Ronstadt or the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band weren’t interested in the opening act’s surreal comedy experiments. Hipper crowds were catching on, but it still meant a lot of painful nights performing for club patrons who thought his faux-dumb schtick was just dumb. “This act doesn’t work everywhere,” he wrote in his show notes.

Even Lorne Michaels didn’t quite get it, although he believed there was something to Martin’s “overly confident idiot” parody of show business. Martin was still an underground act when Michaels booked him to host Saturday Night Live — and then everything exploded. Martin’s shows began selling out everywhere. Characters like the Wild and Crazy Guys with Dan Aykroyd received a solid response the first time around; when Martin returned to SNL, the characters practically got an ovation when they strutted into their happening apartment to swing with big American breasts. Martin’s first album, Let’s Get Small, became the first comedy record to go platinum. He toured 50 cities in 60 days, outdrawing Fleetwood Mac. He was comedian-as-rock star, but his sensational rise was out of control. “I thought I was still doing comedy,” Martin complained, “but I was a party host.” So just as quickly as his stand-up career blew up, Martin ended it. 

Now details everything that came after — movies like RoxanneParenthood and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, stage plays and music albums, lucrative tours and television series with Martin Short. But career achievements aren’t what the second documentary is about. Now tells the story of the even more miraculous transformation from Martin the Neurotic Loner to Martin the Contented Man in Love. When you consider Martin’s tortured soul during his first five decades or so in show business, it’s hard to believe that the guy figured it out. It’s the ending he never saw coming.

Now features more celebrities — Short, Jerry Seinfeld, Eric Idle, Diane Keaton — and that’s not always a great thing. Martin and Seinfeld riffing on comedy is less compelling than The Lonely Guy’s pensive musings on the meaning of art, solitude, parental approval and unexpected happy endings.  

A deep sense of melancholy runs through both Then and Now as the comedian figures out success in just about everything except being a human being. It’s like his teacher’s lesson when Martin learned to tap dance for the movie Pennies from Heaven: “There are hard steps that look easy, and easy steps that look hard.” It took Martin until his senior years to take that insight to heart, but it’s more meaningful because it's so hard-won. In the worst Steve Martin comedies, those kinds of happy endings feel sappy and maudlin. But in the best ones, he finds a way to make us laugh while unexpectedly delivering all the feels. In Steve!, he delivers on both promises. 


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